White/Innocent. Black/Criminal. Men/Clever. Women/Nurturing. If you’ve ever taken an implicit bias test or training, you’ll recognize pairs like these as examples of the unconscious associations our brains make about social categories. While social psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald first came up with the concept (which they called implicit social cognition) in the 1990s, only in the last decade has the idea taken hold in popular culture. Implicit bias has increasingly been identified as an important issue in schools, police departments, social services, and workplaces across the country.
As a diversity and inclusion consultant, I am frequently asked by nonprofits, schools, and corporations to do “implicit bias trainings.” The formula for these workshops is simple: They typically start with a brief talk on the negative effects of implicit bias on productivity, company culture, and diversity, followed by examples of some of the most insidious racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic biases and their far-reaching impacts. Participants are given tips and tricks for combatting not only their own biases, but the institutionalized biases baked into their organizations. Finally, the consultant exhorts all participants to stay vigilant, keep fighting, and work toward a better world.
I love giving these workshops, but there is a moment in just about every one of them that makes me cringe. As people exit the room, I typically hear snippets of conversations along the lines of, “It’s important to be unbiased” or “I’m going to make sure my team isn’t biased” or “We’re an unbiased company, so this was an important workshop.” These statements make me wonder if participants believe that a single implicit bias workshop is a miracle elixir for success, and that I am the magician behind it. Both of these assumptions are false.
What I’ve realized is that implicit bias training, the way many professionals offer it, has a framing problem. Bias isn’t like an upset stomach that an individual can take an antacid to fix; it’s a chronic issue that affects entire organizations, industries, and even societies. Individuals have racist, sexist, and homophobic biases because our families, schools, workplaces, and popular culture are racist, sexist, and homophobic. The outcome of any implicit bias training shouldn’t be to cure people’s bias or make them more objective—it should be to make people bias-aware.
By bias-aware, I don’t mean the sort of awareness that comes from taking the Implicit Association Test (IAT) and reading your test results. Being bias-aware requires introspection and understanding of one’s own experiences in society. The IAT can tell me, for example that, depending on the day, I have a slight preference for white people over Black people. My own experiences tell me I grew up in a predominantly white and East Asian suburb with few Black classmates and tended to watch TV shows with white or East Asian casts. I know for a fact that, despite my more cosmopolitan experience in college, my standards of beauty, intelligence, and desirability are biased toward the people I grew up surrounded by.
When people are bias-aware, they are able to act with less bias without fixating on being unbiased. Bias-aware people can do this by course-correcting their actions and decisions using knowledge about their own biases. For example, someone might say, “I believe that I’ve selected the best people on this panel, but know I’m biased toward men. Let me look one more time with that in mind and see if the outcome changes.” While the decision may not end up changing, the process of being honest and nonjudgmental about one’s own bias adds both accountability and intentionality.
How can you create and support a workplace that is bias-aware rather than bias-avoidant?
Depicting diversity and inclusion efforts as “weeding out the bad apples” or otherwise assuming that only a few bad individuals are biased will fail to create a healthy work environment. Creating inclusive workplaces is hard work that takes an entire organization, and for it to succeed, the work must be framed positively and collaboratively. Organizations are built by biased people working together to be self-aware, instead of objective people working to stave off their irrational biases. Our relationship with bias is one of healing and growth, rather than a “fight.” And our life experiences that contributed to who we are today are assets, rather than sources of shame.
Biased statements and decisions are almost always harmful to others. The negative impact of being stereotyped, insulted, or excluded due to bias cannot be overlooked in a bias-aware organization, and yet stigmatizing bias leads to bias-avoidant environments. To walk this fine line, organizations need to create both reliable and trusted systems to address conflict and an organizational culture that is psychologically safe and allows for vulnerability. Those that succeed won’t just be bias-aware; they’ll be more resilient, more flexible, and more innovative, too.
Bringing bias out into the open is hard when nobody has the time. The nightmare scenarios diversity and inclusion consultants like to talk about (all the new hires are men, the conference venue isn’t wheelchair accessible, the new manager was mistaken for cleaning staff) happen in some part because organizations move too quickly. The more rushed people feel, the more likely they are to make snap decisions based on gut feelings. By making conversations about bias normal and common (for the record, a one-hour mandatory bias training once every two years doesn’t count), organizations can signal that they take bias seriously, and give their employees time to reflect on their own experiences.
Implicit bias is one of the most important topics for organizations to address. While it’s tempting for many of us (consultants included) to see bias as a lingering cold that we can banish with enough effort, this false advertising won’t help us or organizations in the long-term. Only by recognizing the biases within ourselves, bringing them out into the open and having genuine, uncomfortable, and powerful conversations about them can we use our biases for good.
Lily Zheng is an organizational consultant, executive coach, and design researcher.